Updated Mar 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Democrats pin 2024 hopes and fears on Biden's State of the Union

Animated collage of close up photos Joe Biden speaking

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Sean Rayford, Anna Moneymaker, and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Democratic lawmakers tell Axios that President Biden's State of the Union performance on Thursday will be pivotal for his attempts to dispel voter concerns about his age.

Why it matters: Some Democrats dread a high-profile senior moment. Others expressed confidence that Biden can repeat last year's energetic performance.

  • "We are all nervous," said one House Democrat, citing concerns about the 81-year-old Biden's "ability to speak without blowing things."
  • Another House Democrat said: "Listen, Trump has made rhetorical slips … Biden is going to make rhetoric slips, I think the key is his energy level."

Zoom in: Former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Axios he expects a strong performance: "It's important that it be good."

  • "There's no doubt that he has the vigor [for a second term], but that's being questioned," said Hoyer. "He's quick, and he needs to show that."
  • "Of the various speeches speeches a president gives, the State of the Union in an election year is a big one," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).
  • Longtime Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik — who regularly publishes analyses of the 2024 campaign — told Axios: "Given concerns about Biden's age, his delivery will be as important as his substance."

Between the lines: Many Democrats pointed to Biden's verbal sparring with right-winger hecklers at last year's State of the Union as a reason to have faith in his rhetorical abilities.

  • "He owned the Republicans when they tried to heckle him," said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, predicting Biden will do an "outstanding job."
  • Others pointed to President Trump, saying the contrast between the two will ultimately be Biden's saving grace.
  • Another House Democrat offered a simpler rationale for their confidence: "The State of the Union is a speech that's programmed. It's not a debate."

The other side: Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), at a GOP Conference meeting on Wednesday, discouraged House Republicans from heckling Biden.

  • "The underlying message is it was bad form [last year] and ultimately helps the President. Let him babble on without our interrupting," said one House Republican who was present.
  • Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) predicted Biden would "get interrupted many times by my colleagues across the aisle" in an attempt to force gaffes.
  • "It's going to be early, in my opinion. And it's not going to be one or two members. I think they're looking to turn it into a mess."

By the numbers: The State of the Union is watched by tens of millions of people — 27 million in 2023 — making it Biden's best opportunity to reach voters before November.

  • "It's going to be one of the biggest audiences that the president will have this year, so it's a huge opportunity to make the case," said Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio).

The bottom line: A Democratic strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said simply, "Let's see some main character energy!"

Go deeper: Biden's reset moment

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Hoyer is the former majority leader.

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